96. Interviews – Composer Thomas Hundemer on his “Slightly Comic Variations”
It’s almost that time again: the Sugarmill Music Festival, now in its third year, begins this Friday, May 18! Over the span of three days, the beautiful, historic Rosalie Sugarmill will host eight chamber music concerts just south of Alexandria, Louisiana. Aside from the classics, concertgoers will also hear works by two Louisiana composers. These locals are Thomas Hundemer, who is principal French horn of the Shreveport Symphony Orchestra, and Todd Gabriel, a violist with the SSO and Professor Emeritus of Centenary College. Tom’s piece, Slightly Comic Variations, though written nearly thirty years ago, will still be new to most of our audience members – and, based on my conversation with Tom, I expect it will be a welcome discovery! Tom and his fellow SSO principals play as the quintet, the Winds of Shreveport, this Friday at 5:30 PM. Full program notes can be found here. Also be on the lookout for my interview with Todd Gabriel coming this Wednesday!
What is the significance of the title Slightly Comic Variations? How does this title relate to the music? I chose the title partly because the theme is very simplistic, perhaps inane. I wanted a very simple idea to work with variation form, which is often the case with theme and variation forms. In addition, there is a cadential formula that is used at the end of the theme, and in several of the variations which to me is somewhat comic in character.
Why are these only “slightly comic” and not “truly hilarious” or something of that sort? There is nothing to really laugh or chuckle about in this music, but it may get a smile or two.
Are there any specific motives or musical ideas our audience should be listening for in this piece? The theme is a small ABA form. The whole-steps are one of the features modified in each variation. The B section is more mercurial with some large intervallic leaps, also exploited in each variation, and each variation preserves the ABA structure.
The theme and variations genre is one with a long history. Are there any specific works in this genre which inspired you in writing this composition? To some extent it is modeled on the last movement of the Carl Nielsen wind quintet, one of the cornerstone works of the woodwind quintet repertoire. I’ve also been influenced by Bach and Brahms who composed great sets of variations – the finale to Brahms’ Fourth Symphony comes to mind as does his idea of “developing variation.”
There are two versions of this piece, right? What about this piece changed between the 1974 original and the 1991 revision? Many things changed! The original scoring was without horn (woodwind quartet) and there were fewer completed variations. I had several sketches for other variations that I finished when I returned to the piece in 1991, added the horn, and made extensive revisions to the whole work.
Are there things you would change about it today if you could? Are you still after all these years generally happy with the piece? Some of the harmony and voicing I would do much differently now, but in general, I still like the music. Perhaps I would put it in easier keys for the players!
What has it been like to revisit this piece as a performer? Why did you and the Winds of Shreveport decide to program this piece at the Sugarmill Music Festival? Have you performed it on other occasions? I’ve performed the Variations on numerous occasions, but not for about ten years. The clarinetist and bassoonist are new to our quintet, and I am eager to see if it holds up for audiences after all this time. The Sugarmill Music Festival wanted a work by a Louisiana composer, and I’m a native from Bogalusa!
How have your experiences as a French hornist and as a player in a wind quintet affected the way you write for this instrumentation? I always approach performing my own music with a good deal of trepidation, probably why the original scoring was without horn.
Have you learned anything about composition from playing your own pieces? Yes, in many cases, I have improved my own horn writing and I hope the other instrumental writing, especially in making it less exhausting to play, but to my chagrin, I am a slow learner!
Is there anything else you would like to say about this composition? This piece began as a student assignment, working with one of the classic forms that composers all tackle at some point early on and often revisit when they are older and more experienced. One challenge is, even though each variation stands alone, there is an overall flow and pacing that cumulatively adds up to a satisfactory conclusion – the form within the form. Variation is a surprisingly resilient form, and my hope is that the listeners and players will find numerous aspects to enjoy in this music.
About Jackson. Jackson Harmeyer is a graduate student pursuing his master’s degree in musicology at the University of Louisville where, in April 2017, he was awarded the Gerhard Herz Music History Scholarship. Previously, Jackson graduated summa cum laude from the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, Louisiana following the completion of his undergraduate thesis, “Learning from the Past: The Influence of Johann Sebastian Bach upon the Soviet Composers.” From 2014 to 2016, Jackson served as director of the successful chamber music series, Abendmusik Alexandria, and since that time has remained concert annotator for presenters of classical music across Louisiana. His current research interests include French spectral music and the compositions of Kaija Saariaho. He recently shared this research in March 2018 at the American Musicological Society South-Central Chapter’s annual meeting in Asheville, North Carolina. Also a composer, Jackson has worked to integrate the vocabulary and grammar of modern music into compositions which are not only innovative but also engaging to the general listener. His compositions have been performed at the Sugarmill Music Festival and New Music on the Bayou. Learn more about Jackson Harmeyer, his scholarship, and his compositions at www.JacksonHarmeyer.com.